A Question/Clarification from the Sermon
A Question/Clarification from the Sermon
by: Pastor Matt Jones, PhD
In the introduction of my sermon last week (July 2, 2023), I got into Independence Day, secular culture, Pride stuff, slavery, and racism. All of it was intended to acknowledge the upcoming holiday in our nation (July 4, 2023) and also to make a comparison with our immoral culture and the biblical world of Acts that was also stained by slavery, ruined by racism, filled with sexual perversion, etc. In the midst of this, I brought up the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth, and made a passing comment about Abraham Lincoln that he was “a slave owner himself.” It was a passing comment, but it raised at least one eyebrow, so this blog post is an unpacking and elaboration on those four words.
After the sermon I was asked by a faithful and dear brother, ‘but wasn’t Lincoln an abolitionist?’ (that’s my paraphrase of the question). The answer to this question is yes (well, maybe not by modern standards to some, but definitely in his time he was a bona fide abolitionist), i.e., Lincoln was known for his abolitionary efforts and God no doubt used him to turn the tide against the horrible evils of slavery. That said, history isn’t always that simple and clean, especially not in the 1800s in North America. In the case of Lincoln and his record on racism, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass unequivocally regarded Lincoln as sharing "the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro."1 As it relates to slavery, Lincoln scholars such as Dr. Kevin Johnson have implicated him for inheriting slaves through his wife, whose father was Kentucky’s largest slaveholder.2 That said, not all scholars of Lincoln are agreed on this point (i.e., how do we interpret Lincoln’s inheriting and selling slaves, as opposed to freeing them, not to mention his friendships with infamous slave masters like senator Henry Clay, while reconciling it with public anti-slavery statements he made), so what I should have said was “a man accused of having ties to slavery” or something like that to qualify that his connections are complex. In any case, while his ties to slavery are not as clear, Lincoln’s ties to racism are very clear, so I also could have just said, “a man known for racialized rhetoric and supremacist ideologies.” For example, there are quotes from speeches Lincoln gave that were glaringly racist, like his 1858 speech in Charleston, Illinois, when he proclaimed,
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
Granted, this statement was made before the Emancipation Proclamation, nevertheless around the time of it going into effect, Lincoln was implicated with plans to ship freed Black Americans out of America to Liberia and/or Haiti which he spoke of in his message to congress, so while Lincoln did work to free slaves, he also didn’t exactly want them around in America and viewed Black Americans as lesser than whites in a racial hierarchy.3 Further, as it relates to emancipation, many Lincoln scholars hold that his motives may have been less about freedom for humans made in the image of God and more so about his beliefs that slavery disadvantaged poor whites who couldn’t afford slaves and speaking of whites who did own slaves, Lincoln advocated for the government to pay whites reparations to compensate them for losing free laborers. Meanwhile, we can also find in Lincoln’s speeches places where he speaks of God’s righteous judgment against the country for slavery, so depending on how one prooftexts the man they can spin him into a pure abolitionist or a dirty racist. The same goes for his faith, as there many examples of Lincoln invoking God and quoting the Bible in his public addresses, and yet there are accounts of Lincoln mocking the Bible, denying the historicity of Jesus as God the Son incarnate, and even writing an essay titled “Infidelity” which attacked Christianity, not to mention the fact that he was never baptized and never belonged in membership at a local church.4
All of this to say, Lincoln and his history with racism and slavery is complicated, along with his agnosticism and cultural Christianity used in the political sphere, and thus from where we sit today we have to be careful to not fall into anachronistic readings of the history.5 My sermon introduction was not a biography of Lincoln, so there wasn’t time to get into all of this, but since I was asked I wanted to elaborate and a public blog post affords the time to do that, whereas a sermon on Sunday is limited (and we already push the limits at DRC with our preaching style and length!). In summary, yes, Lincoln did amazing abolitionist stuff. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, he was also a product of the oppressive white South, so it is no wonder we see contradictions in the man. W.E.B. Du Bois described Lincoln’s contradictory nature as follows: “he was big enough to be inconsistent—cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man—a big, inconsistent, brave man.”6
The flaws of histories’ heroes are ultimately a wonderful reminder to us as Christians that we only have one unflawed and perfect hero, He is our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, the hero who died for His enemies to reconcile them to the Father. Jesus stands out in history and Scripture as the world’s greatest hero and more, God the Son in the flesh to save sinners from hell and God’s just wrath. Speaking of heroes in Scripture, even the heroes of our sacred Bible are flawed and yet God worked through these men and women of history to do His work. Abraham was a polygamist and sex trafficker. Moses was a murderer. David was a womanizer. Paul was a persecutor. The biblical list goes on. The observation at hand (i.e., that God works through flawed people) is offered in no way to minimize the sins of men, especially not the oppressive slavery and demonic racism that was alive when Lincoln was born. Rather, the observation serves as a caution against white-washing history and holding up men with feet of clay too high. On this note, I will close with another quote from DuBois, who after saying something critical about Lincoln’s racism he got a bunch of heated mail so he published a short article from which I will close with a sample from it:
“We love to think of the Great as flawless. …As a result of this, no sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good. We slur over and explain away his inconsistencies and at last there begins to appear, not the real man, but the tradition of the man–remote, immense, perfect, cold and dead!
“… Thus many of my readers were hurt by what I said of Lincoln… I am sorry to hurt them, for some of them were tried friends of me and my cause–particularly one like the veteran, wounded at Chickamauga and a staunch defender of our rights, who thinks my words “unkind and uncalled for.”
“First and foremost, there comes a question of fact. Was what I said true or false? … If my facts were false, my words were wrong–but were my facts false?
“Beyond this, there is another and deeper question on which most of my critics dwell. They say, What is the use of recalling evil? What good will it do? or as one phrases, “Is this proper food for your people”? I think it is.
“Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century. Certainly of the five masters,–Napoleon, Bismarck, Victoria, Browning and Lincoln, Lincoln is to me the most human and lovable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.
“…The difficulty is that ignorant folk and inexperienced try continually to paint humanity as all good or all evil. Was Lincoln great and good? He was! Well, then, all evil alleged against him are malicious lies, even if they are true.
“Why should you wish to hold up to public gaze those defects of character you claim he possessed, knowing that he wrought so well?”
“That is the very reason for telling the Truth. That is the reason for painting Cromwell’s mole as it was and not as some artists conceive it ought to have been.
“The scars and foibles and contradictions of the Great do not diminish but enhance the worth and meaning of their upward struggle: it was the bloody sweat that proved the human Christ divine; it was his true history and antecedents that proved Abraham Lincoln a Prince of Men.”7
1 Frederick Douglass, “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln," April 14, 1876, https://web.archive.org/web/20110427050628/http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?documentprint=39 .
2 “Lincoln’s Ownership of Slaves Confirmed in New Book by Kevin Orlin Johnson,” CISION, Jul7 7, 2023, https://www.prweb.com/releases/lincolns_ownership_of_slaves_confirmed_in_new_book_by_kevin_orlin_johnson_from_pangaeus_press/prweb18499473.htm
3. Abraham Lincoln, Dec 1, 1862, https://web.archive.org/web/20120114110823/http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/74.html
4. Justin Taylor, “Was Abraham Lincoln a Christian?” TGC https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/was-abraham-lincoln-a-christian/ . On the hypothesis that towards the end of his life Lincoln became more open to Christianity see Stephen Mansfield, “The Maddeningly Untraditional and Modern Faith of Abraham Lincoln,” Religion News, August 12, 2019, https://religionnews.com/2019/08/12/the-maddeningly-untraditional-and-modern-faith-of-abraham-lincoln/
5. For more, see the Wikipedia entry on this… it’s pretty good and surfaces the complexities of Lincoln’s good and bad on this topic https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln_and_slavery
6. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Crisis Magazine, May 1922.
7. W.E.B. Du Bois. “Again, Lincoln”. September, 1922.